Can you triumph over your rivals in Catan?
Android, iOS, & Steam
# of Players
Catan Universe is an all-encompassing suite for Catan, allowing you to play the classic base game, the numerous expansions, and the two player card game through one app. Classic Catan is a trading, set collection game in which players race to accumulate the required victory points to win the game. Catan (then known as Settlers of Catan) was widely credited with being an important forefather to modern strategy gaming.
Catan Universe is an interesting app which combines a lot of Catan stuff in one place and does so across a number of different platforms. This review won’t discuss the basic Catan gameplay (see our review of the older, stand-alone Catan game if you want a little more detail on the base game), but rather we will unpack what Catan Universe offers.
To start, Catan Universe is a free-to-play game. The app breaks everything down to five different games: First Island (the original, base game, also known as “The Game”), Seafarers, Cities & Knights, Rise of the Inkas, and Rivals for Catan. The first four are built around the same game, while Rivals for Catan is a two player card game. Seafarers and Cities & Knights are direct expansions of the base game and require the First Island to be unlocked in order to purchase.
The common play modes across the five games are: Singleplayer, Auto match, Custom match, and Tutorial. First Island adds a Free match option (which is free online play) while Rivals for Catan adds a free introduction game. The modes you can play for free in the base game are: First Island (Free match and Custom match, three player only), Rivals for Catan (Free introduction match), and the tutorial for all five games. Everything else, from the base single player, to multiplayer, and even just four player games of any type, all need to be unlocked with coins which are purchased via in-app purchase, much more on those later. The lone exception is the First Island single player mode which can be partially unlocked by following a series of introductions which begin when you first start the app. I say ‘partially’ because the single player modes have different scenarios, and only the basic setup and rule scenario is unlocked this way, the others must be unlocked via purchase.
The game offers the chance to earn scrolls which can be used to temporarily unlock expansions which you haven’t purchased, these unlocks are available for 24 hours after using a scroll. This is a fun way to try them out before buying. You receive two scrolls once you have the app and an account setup.
Got all of that? Out of the box you can play the base game online and against AI for free (three players only), the latter of which only after you complete the extensive introduction instructions which includes playing full AI games and optionally playing tutorials. If you want to permanently unlock expansions, full online play, or any four player games, you’ll need to purchase the expansions.
The lump sum of all of this is that the game lets you play Catan, the expansions, and even the two player card game, provided you invest into the Catan Universe ecosystem. Really, that’s all many people want. Catan is a massively popular game and there is a strong user base in this app, so anybody who wants to play a lot of Catan should find a nice home in Catan Universe.
Barrier to Entry
Catan Universe essentially breaks learning down into two categories: learning how to use the app and learning how to play the game. The aforementioned series of steps (dubbed “Arrival on Catan”) teaches you how to use the app, with the chance to play through tutorials if needed. This walkthrough includes playing games against the AI. Arrival on Catan generally does a good job of explaining how the app is setup, but falls short on some important details such as how to acquire more gold (you have to buy it).
The tutorials on how to play the game and the expansions are well made. They are generally as brief as possible and hit on the main points, which is exactly what you want. The Rivals for Catan was, in my opinion, the weakest of the bunch as it goes a little too quickly through the rules.
Arrival at Catan
Look and Feel
The app looks good. The classic Catan hexes are there, with bright colors, laid out on a digital table. There are some nice looking load/splash screens and the menus are laid out well. It’s a good looking app.
The controls are a bit of mixed bag. There is a button on the lower right of the screen to take the next obvious action (roll or end turn, usually) and a smaller button you can hold to see all available options, which is a nice touch. Should you want to trade, click the button on the opposite side of the screen and start up your offer, or the dreaded bank trade. The game makes it obvious which build options you have at any time by placing an available piece on the side of the screen when you can build. These are all nice design features.
Where things start to fall apart a bit are in the placement of roads/settlements/cities. The drag-and-drop is very touchy and it’s incredibly easy to miss the mark, you may click-and-confirm this action, but the click areas are quite small as well, so that isn’t super easy either. The control issues are compounded by there not being an undo button to take back an accidental move.
Panning/zooming on the table works decently, I’ve seen a few hiccups, but nothing major. Pinch to zoom, as expected. The big problem is tilting the view, this action is extremely touchy on a phone screen and you can easily slide a finger the wrong way and end up stuck in a bad angle. It’s a very frustrating situation. Elsewhere, I’ve had the app freeze on my a couple of times in various menus or during a tutorial/game.
Overall, the app generally looks the part. It’s laid out decently and has a nice look, with a 3D table to move around to see the game. The controls are mostly handled well with some clever additions to make things easier. Digging deeper, however, there are some unfortunate issues here which will pop up over time.
This is very confusing to explain trying to separate free versus paid features, so I’ll try to be as clear as possible.
The free multiplayer options you have are: Custom game (three player versus friends and/or AI), and Free game which will randomly match you with online opponents. These are all only in the base game and you don’t get any custom match options.
If you purchase the First Island expansion, you will get auto match to replace free match, this is essentially the same but allows you to specific some requirements for the opponents you match against. You will also get the ability to select specific game options (such as timeouts) in custom games as well as unlocking four player custom games. Purchasing other games will unlock similar features for those games/expansions.
The game uses the ELO rating system where all players start at 1000 and rise/fall based on wins/losses. There is an overall leaderboard for ELO ratings. The game also uses a karma system which rewards players for finishing out games and penalizes those who leave. This is a nice addition, but Catan is a game which will sometimes have clear runaway winners so a graceful resign option would have been very nice.
The downside here is that online connection issues are aplenty. I’ve experienced them occasionally, but they aren’t a constant issue. Check app store reviews for more stories about them. Disconnections are bad enough, but if you are unable to reconnect you lose ELO and karma which can have a big effect on your ability to match for games later.
Again, some confusion in free versus paid.
Free: If you complete the lengthy app tutorial, you can play a three player base game, with the base setup, against two AI opponents.
Purchase a game: Unlock different scenarios for that game as well as the ability to play four player games. Scenarios will alter setup and/or rules in some way. You will also unlock some pre-game settings such as the point total needed to win.
The game includes ten different AI opponents, all of which are labeled as “Rookie” level. I’m not going to confuse anybody with a good, or even average Catan player, but these bots feel far from rookie to me. The only thing about them that seems to be taking it easy on my, the poor Catan settler, is that they tend to target each other with the robbers more than they target me. Otherwise, they play a smart game and I frequently lose to them. Your results will vary, but I’ve heard similar reports from others who are likely much better at the game than I am.
The game features a host of achievements and tracks detailed player stats across all games. Your wins and ELO rankings for each game are kept separately. For each game, stats on dice roll results are kept which are always fun to look at and scream about after the game.
Coin purchase options
Gold is used to unlock expansions and the gold purchase options are seemingly designed to nickel and dime customers. Each expansion costs 500 gold, so naturally you can’t buy 500 gold, you can buy 100, 400, 900, 1,700, or 3,000. You do, however, start with 100 gold, so that 900 option seems okay. But wait! It costs $10.99, where as you can buy gold 100 at a time for $0.99. Yes, it’s cheaper to buy 400-400-100 ($9) than it is to buy 900 ($11). Thanks for that!
The 3,000 gold pack seems like a nice way to grab all six expansions at once, there’s even a discount as it’s priced at $24.99. But wait! There are currently only five expansions to buy, so you can use those last 500 coins on avatars, XP boosters, scrolls, or other stuff you might not want. There are also bundles available which are the best way to get the base game and the first two expansions, you can grab that bundle for 1,300 coins, another amount not available as a single purchase.
I’ve heard some sound reasoning for why apps prefer to use in-game currencies vs just allowing direct purchases of additional content. Basically, it makes things much easier on the developer and allows for more consistency across platforms, regions, etc… I’m okay with that aspect, but the way they sell the gold is confusing, if I’m being nice about it. Somebody starts playing, sees they have 100 gold, wants to buy the base game and Seafarers (the oldest, most popular expansion), of course that 900 gold pack is going to look like the way to go at first glance. Why not charge them an extra $2 for the convenience of buying 900 gold?
It would be great if this were all just a big misunderstanding and/or typo on the pricing. There’s too much smoke here for me to believe that, but readers may have a different point of view.
The Wrap Up
In a better world, I’d be really conflicted about Catan Universe. I would explain the difficulties in weighing the shady gold purchasing tactics vs a really strong implementation, and discuss how difficult it is to rectify those two into a single score.
Unfortunately, the implementation is decidedly average, so there’s not much of a struggle to wrap things up. The gold purchasing system is shady, at best, and should have been fixed a long time ago (I generously say “fixed”, implying it wasn’t a strategic decision to have the “odd” pricing), there are no excuses for that. The way they have chosen to divy up the free versus the paid portions is also frustrating. Did they really need to lock out four player games? Or the ability to specify a timeout in custom online games? It’s a very frustrating system seemingly designed to annoy players into purchasing the full game.
The actual implementation is mostly decent, as things look pretty good, there is a ton of content, rating system, and so on. However, there are too many issues to ignore. Connection issues lead the pack here, but there are many small things that eventually add up, such as freezes, screen tilting issues, and so on.
In the end, Catan is a widely loved game, and the app does just enough to scrape by as being an acceptable platform for playing that game. If you like the game enough to buy the full pieces and put up with the issues, Catan Universe won’t seem so bad. If you are not as big of a Catan fan, the app might just infuriate you if you stick around long enough.